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Judaism and Vegetarianism:
A online chat with Richard Schwartz
This is the edited transcript of MSN Vegetarian SubForum's chat, Judaism and Vegetarianism, with guest Richard Schwartz. The chat was held Sunday, May 5, 1996 in the What's Cooking... Online! Forum Cooking Chat Room.
Hello, and welcome to Vegetarian Chat. The topic today is "Judaism and Vegetarianism" with special guest Richard Schwartz. Richard is a Professor of Mathematics at the College of Staten Island. He is the author of three books: Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival. He frequently contributes articles and speaks to groups on issues related to vegetarianism, nutrition, health, ecology, and the treatment of animals.
Welcome to MSN and What's Cooking... Online!, Richard.
Thank you, and it's very good to be here!
It seems to me that I meet a fairly large number of Jews among the vegetarian population, both offline and on. Clearly, there are many who have decided that as one slogan says, "Judaism and Vegetarianism Go Together Naturally". Why is this?
Well, all the reasons for being a vegetarian can be based on very important Jewish values. These include taking care of our health, showing compassion for animals, working as coworkers with God in protecting the earth, conserving resources, sharing with hungry people, and even seeking and pursuing peace. So these are all important values in Judaism and very important reasons for being vegetarians.
Here's a question that comes up often -- Don't Jews have to eat meat on certain festivals?
Actually, according to the Talmud, and the source is in Pesachim 109A, after the destruction of the Temple, it is no longer necessary to eat meat to celebrate any holiday or festival. There have recently been some scholarly articles by rabbis who agree with that assessment. Finally, there are chief rabbis of Israel, former and present, who are or have been strict vegetarians, who eat no meat at all. If it's good enough for chief rabbis, it should be ok for the average Jew.
Jewish omnivores often throw the "after the Temple is rebuilt" idea at us, as evidenced by this post from the Jewish Forum Judaism BBS...."Do you mean it's possible that if the Temple is rebuilt there might be just as much sacrificing going on as there was in the Old Testament? Because there seemed to be a LOT. Everything had a sacrifice associated with it. I guess if I'm to be accepting of all religions I can't get angry at that, but it sure does make me sad. Yes, I'm an animal lover. That's a lot of blood to throw around."
According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, and one of the most outstanding philosophers of the 20th century, the messianic period will again be vegetarian as it was originally in the Garden of Eden. And he based that on a powerful prophecy of Isaiah, which was that the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, and no one shall hurt nor destroy on all of God's holy mountain. So, based on that, he felt that it would be a vegetarian period. Also, in terms of the sacrifices, there is a Jewish teaching that states that in the time of the restored Temple, people will be at a higher level and therefore there won't be a need for sin offerings or guilt offerings, but only offerings or sacrifices of Thanksgiving and they could use grains or vegetarian materials. So, based on this, we hope there'll be less slaughter and sacrifices in the time to come. Also, no matter what happens in the messianic period, people should make decisions today based on the many violations of Jewish and religious values in general related to modern livestock agriculture and the eating of meat and animal products. In other words, the health problems, the environmental problems, the resource problems, and these are so significant, these crises that are occuring because of this diet, that vegetarianism has become a societal imperative today.
Next, let's take a closer look at the particular Jewish values which support vegetarianism.
Sure, Bobbi. First, Judaism has some very powerful teachings about compassion for animals.
The greatest Jewish teacher, Moses , was selected for leadership according to the Jewish tradition because as a shepherd he showed great compassion for his animals. And the same thing was true of King David. And Rebecca was deemed suitable to be a wife for Isaac, the son of the first Jew Abraham, because she rushed to provide water to ten thirsty camels.
Now, there are many laws in the Torah, that command proper treatment of animals, and this is so important that this is part of the Ten Commandments, where it states that not only people are supposed to rest on the Sabbath day, but that animals are also to rest on the Sabbath day. And, of course, this is a far cry from the factory farming of today.
In addition, taking care of health is a very important Jewish mandate. It is so important, that if life is threatened, it overrides many commandments regarding the Sabbath, eating non-Kosher foods, and even eating on our most important day, Yom Kippur. So, if it's a question of possibly saving a human life, then one must (not may, MUST) violate laws of the Sabbath, for instance using a telephone, driving to a hospital; it is a commandment that you MUST do these things if it has the potential of saving a life.
Now, also there are very strong teachings about the preservation of the environment, and conserving resources.
In effect, we are forbidden to waste or unnecessarily destroy anything of value. And in every case, as I said, the realities of modern livestock agriculture are completely contrary to these basic Jewish values. Just one more example, the Torah teaches about sharing with hungry people, and to raise cattle today as much as 70% of the grain produced in the U.S. is fed to animals destined for slaughter, as an estimated 20M people die from hunger and its effects every year.
So, a shift to a nutritious plant-based diet would be far more consistent with these and other basic Jewish values.
There are so many critical problems in our world today that many question why we exhibit so much concern for non-human animals. They may understand our environmental concerns, and increasingly be more aware of our health concerns, but we're often asked why we exhibit so much concern for non-human animals in the face of so much human suffering. How would you respond to this question?
Well, fortunately it's not an either-or situation. It's not concern for animals or concern for people, and many of the famous humanitarians have been in the forefront of helping animals. Also, it turns out when we exploit animals, there are generally negative effects for people as well.
So, a shift toward vegetarian diets would be tremendously beneficial for the 9B US farm animals that are slaughtered every year now, after being raised under extremely cruel conditions. But such a shift to vegetarianism would also be tremendously helpful, actually essential, for human beings, because the medical cost associated with the degenerative diseases that have been strongly linked to animal-centered diets have been soaring. And this has caused major deficits and economic problems at the national, state, and local levels.
In addition, animal-centered diets and the intensive livestock agriculture associated with it have had major negative ecological effects. For example, they have caused soil erosion and depletion, extensive air and water pollution, and destruction of tropical rain forests and other habitats. They also contribute substantially to potential global warming. Hence, a shift to plant-based diets is one of the most important things, if not the most important thing, that a person can do for people and for our threatened planet.
Environmental issues tell us this next question is irrelevant, but it's a common one. Jews who keep kosher often try to rationalize their meat eating with the argument that kosher animals are slaughtered more humanely. Is this necessarily so? And aren't they still raised in factory farming conditions?
Yes, unfortunately, for the most part. There might be a few free-range, relatively speaking, but I believe that most are raised under factory-type conditions. It's only the final minutes that may be different in terms of the inspection of the animal and the method of slaughter, which was designed to be as compassionate as possible at a time when it was thought that meat was essential for proper nutrition.
But unfortunately, the many months of cruel treatment before slaughter is still a major problem, and that's why Jewish vegetarians feel that there's no need to slaughter ANY animal. Since modern scientific nutrition has shown that we can be healthier on a plant-based diet.
On a lighter note, we're always seeing listings of celebrity vegetarians. How about giving us some names of famous Jewish vegetarians, either historical or contemporary?
The late Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel prize winner in literature was a vegetarian. And other famous writers, including Kafka and Agnon, were vegetarians. Agnon was also a Nobel prize winner in literature.
And, as I've indicated, there have been chief rabbis of Israel who have been or are vegetarians. For example, the present chief Rabbi of Haifa is a strict, lifelong vegetarian.
Host Bobbi Dave
What can individuals do within their own Jewish communities to educate without alienating others?
Well, of course people should always be respectful and courteous and also point out that they are not challenging Judaism, or saying that, God forbid, vegetarianism is a better "religion" than Judaism. What we should be saying is that we are trying very respectfully to challenge people to live up to Judaism's beautiful and powerful teachings related to taking care of our health, showing compassion for animals, protecting the environment, conserving resources, helping the hungry, and also seeking and pursuing peace. And that this is a way of perhaps bringing more idealistic Jews back toward religion by showing the relevance of ancient Jewish teachings to today's critical issues.
What kind of educational resources and organizations are out there to educate us and help us educate others?
Well, first, my own book Judaism and Vegetarianism, tries to be as complete as possible by first giving the Biblical case for vegetarianism, and then by having individual chapters on first taking care of our health, second, compassion for animals ... in each case what Judaism says and how it differs from present day methods of raising animals, etc., and third, protecting the environment and conserving resources, and fourth, helping the hungry, and fifth, seeking and pursuing peace.
Host Bobbi Dave
Yes, it's sitting in front of me, and it's wonderful! :)
Some people question the connection between vegetarianism and peace, and I always tell them that the motto of vegetarian societies and the peace groups are the same! And that is, all we are saying is give PEAS a chance! (grin)
Related to that the Jewish sages saw a connection between the fact that the Hebrew words for "bread" and for "war" come from the same root. And from this they deduced that when there's a shortage of bread and other resources, people are more likely to go to war. And hence, since animal-centered diets are very wasteful of resources, it can be a contribution to violence and war.
Now, to follow up on the initial question, there is an Internation Jewish Vegetarian Society that has been centered in London since 1964 and they now have also a headquarters in Jerusalem.
I have the Jerusalem info here...
International Jewish Vegetarian Society
8 Balfour Street
Jerusalem Israel 92101
Phone: (02) 611114
E-mail: [email protected]
There is also a Jewish Vegetarians of North America that puts out a quarterly newsletter and has conferences from time-to-time, and if anyone contacts me by e-mail, I'd be glad to provide more information about these groups or forward additional information and material. My e-mail is [email protected] If people write to me, I'll try to respond.
Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA)
c/o Israel Mossman
6938 Reliance Rd
Federalsburg, MD 21632
E-mail: [email protected]
Host Karen Mintzias
Richard, I read your letter in the International Vegetarian Union newsletter this month, and it mentions an article presented in a lecture to a 1993 Jewish Vegetarian Conference entitled 'Resolution on Judaism and Vegetarianism'. There was information on how to obtain a copy by postal mail, but I was wondering if it was also available somewhere in electronic format?
Ok, actually, I have a variation (expansion) of that, and I can forward that to anyone who requests it. I received it last week. Please send me e-mail and I'll send it to you.
And, to follow up on that question about resolution, I urge everybody in the audience or reading this transcript, to use this information and other information that I can send to you to get this info to others who might be interested.
And also to very respectfully contact your local rabbis and principals of Jewish schools and ask them to consider this issue, and to perhaps give a sermon or class on this topic.
And I'd be happy to send material either through e-mail or snailmail, depending on what it is, to people who might find it useful. Because, as I've indicated, I think that vegetarianism is essential for global survival today. Because animal-centered diets are so wasteful and cause so much pollution, and is taking money from other esssential uses, and it is also a Jewish imperative because we can have the most beautiful teachings, but if we don't put them into practice, it doesn't have the effect and looks like hypocrisy. So our diet should be consistent with our values, and Jews actually do have a choice in terms of diet, but that choice should be based on a knowledge of the important Jewish values related to the issue and how methods of raising and eating animals are very contrary to these important and beautiful values.
Host Bobbi Dave
Richard, where can people find your books? Are they in bookstores or do they need to use mail order? They're carried by the VRG (Vegetarian Resource Group) and JAR (Jews for Animal Rights), right?
Yes, Bobbi, they are. The JAR is run by my publisher, actually. So I can give an e-mail address of my publisher: [email protected] If you have any trouble, contact me.
Host Bobbi Dave
Here's the address: Jews for Animal Rights (JAR)/Micah Publications
255 Humphrey Street
Marblehead, MA 01945
Richard, I've been noticing vegetarianism creeping into mainstream Jewish books more and more. For example your work is referenced quite often in Joseph Telushkin's "Jewish Wisdom". Also, a book by Bradley Shavit Artson, "It's a Mitzvah!" has quite a good section on tsa'ar ba'alei chayim -- Compassion for Animals.
Maybe the message is starting to get through! :)
Well, it has been said that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. And I believe that the time for the idea that vegetarianism is essential for people, for animals, for the environment, for our scarce resources, that time has come, and I hope that everybody taking part and reading this discussion will help by passing the word to others and this will be part of the momentum that's starting to build. Because, unfortunately, the other side has the power of money publicity, and the establishment on their side, but we have truth and justice and compassion and I hope, fervor, and dedication on our side. And they'll never stop us!
Host Karen Mintzias
Well, my consciousness of many issues has been raised several notches today. Thanks so much for taking the time to come visit MSN, Richard. I've really enjoyed the chat, and all of the information you've shared with us here.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Richard. It was very informative.
Thank you for having me! I'll be happy to get info to anyone who requests it and come back if you think it would be valuable!
Host Karen Mintzias
Richard, I know you do a lot of public speaking. How far do you travel for groups?
Well, recently I've been doing a lot in this area (New York City), and I do go on speaking tours to Israel. I have started what I call a Campaign for a Vegetarian-Conscious Israel by the Year 2000, and I'm also hoping to speak at the NAVS Summer Fest in Pennsylvania this summer. And I'm also considering retirement, so I'll have more time to consider travelling further in the future.
I'd love to go on a speaking tour around the whole country if I could find financial support for it! :)
Thank you very much for all your efforts in setting this up -- I deeply appreciate it!
Well, it took us awhile to arrange, but it's been enjoyable and informative! Thanks for coming!
Host Karen Mintzias
Reluctantly, I must leave now... Thanks again everyone!
You're quite welcome, and I hope we'll be in touch soon!
Richard H. Schwartz
Professor, Mathematics College of Staten Island
2800 Victory Boulevard Staten Island, NY 10314 USA (718) 982-3621
Email address: [email protected] Fax: (718) 982-3631
Author of Judaism and Vegetarianism, Judaism and Global Survival, and Mathematics and Global Survival.
Patron of the International Jewish Vegetarian Society.
My articles on Judaism and Vegetarianism are on the internet at http://schwartz.enviroweb.org/
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